The Art of Screenwriting: Paul Thomas Anderson
Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the most notable filmmakers, screenwriters, and producers in the film industry. Having birthed several iconic films throughout his career, such as There Will Be Blood, Phantom Thread, Punch-Drunk Love, and The Master to name a few, Anderson has a lengthy filmography that every screenwriter should take a closer examination at.
With this in mind, we’re going to take a look at Paul Thomas Anderson and what makes the way he writes a script so special. We’ll discuss several key components of a Paul Thomas Anderson script you’ll find and how you can apply it to your own scripts for inspiration. If you’re an aspiring screenwriter, look no further as we take a deep dive into the brilliance of Paul Thomas Anderson.
Photo credit: NoFilmSchool
The Theme Isn’t Everything
If you’ve ever handed a script of yours to someone in the industry, they more than likely asked you what the theme is. Although it’s ideal to have an answer to these basic questions you most certainly will experience, Anderson has the opposite approach regarding the theme.
Anderson feels that if you worry about the theme too much, you’ll feel yourself writing, meaning you’ll be stuck in a hole constantly chasing after the theme you told yourself. Instead, try telling the story how you want and take a look back on what you think the theme is.
Given that novice screenwriters have all the time in the world to perfect their first several scripts, there’s no shame in finishing one and finding the theme after. Some screenwriters may disagree with Anderson entirely on this notion, but take the advice for what it is.
Characters Should Be Opposites (Adds Conflict)
Unlike the questioning of the theme of your story, for a more agreed-upon subject, Anderson understands the importance of conflict and how characters should be opposites. In fact, Anderson feels the more opposite characters are to one another, the better.
Considering conflict is what drives a story forward and keeps the audience engage, subtle conflict can be achieved in every scene with characters who are nothing alike. Whether it’s Daniel Plainview and H.W. Plainview in There Will Be Blood or Barry and Lena in Punch-Drunk Love, opposites make for a stronger story.
Obviously, it might not be possible for you to have an abundance of opposite characters, but do what you can to ensure your main characters have significant differences. Even it’s something minor, it’s worth throwing in as it’ll add a lot to your story.
Look for Inspiration
Some iconic filmmakers and screenwriters will be too self-centered to discuss their inspirations, but Anderson takes the opposite approach, going on the record of saying that every aspiring filmmaker and writer should jot down films and stories that inspire them.
Considering inspiration is more than likely why you got interested in this subject in the first place, you might as well do what you can to get inspired. Now, don’t make it a goal to seek out inspiration, but instead, whenever you feel inspired, be sure to jot down why you’re inspired.
Anderson does a great job highlighting why this is so important on someone’s script, and there’s a lot of people involved in the field who heartedly disagree with the notion of inspiration. In reality, we all get inspired, so you might as well take some notes on why you like a particular script.
Characters Guide a Story, Not the Script
Going back to the idea of characters being opposites, Anderson also believes in letting the characters guide a story instead of the script. Now, what does this mean exactly? All it means is you shouldn’t have to explain everything when your characters can do it for you.
Backstory and other useless information shouldn’t be the main priority as characters can easily do everything for you in several ways. No matter what the case might be for your script, realize when you have too much description and need to trim your script’s fat.
Know When to Use A Big Scene
If you’ve seen the end of There Will Be Blood, then you know the importance of using a big scene and where to place it. Obviously, Anderson used the most significant scene and most notable moment at the end of the film. Still, there are plenty of other areas to place the quote-on-quote big scenes.
Still, the point of the matter is to not overuse big scenes unless your script is supposed to be a constant thriller. As we’ll discuss in a moment, tension is supposed to used in a film, and no one is better at building tension than Anderson.
As we touched upon above briefly, tension is a significant part of any great script, whether it’s done in small or large amounts. Thus, Anderson has a deepened understanding of what tension is and how it can be utilized in the best way for your script.
● There Will Be Blood (2007)
● Boogie Nights (1997)
● Magnolia (1999)
● Phantom Thread (2017)